The leaves of the coca plant (Erythroxylon coca) have been utilised by people for a range of purposes for thousands of years. It grows indigenously on the slopes of the Andes mountain range (mostly in Peru) but has been cultivated by people across the whole of western South America for centuries. The leaves are traditionally chewed for a number of benefits: it was widely used for mystical, religious, social and medicinal purposes. It was chewed not merely for its stimulant properties - which warded off fatigue and provided the energy and strength necessary for walking and working; the physical demands of the body combating low oxygen levels at high altitude, to help stave off hunger and provide basic protein and as an anaesthetic.

When the Spanish ‘conquistadors ‘arrived in South America, they initially dismissed tales of coca’s potency as native superstition. However, once they learned how effective it actually was, and how poorly the natives coped without it, they quickly moved to regulate and tax it, introducing a ‘tithe’ as they developed and imposed a administrative system on the indigenous people.

Coca eventually reached Europe via trade routes, but it did not travel well and much of the plants potency was lost during the long travel times of the period and crude storage methods. It was not until 1855 that the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the cocaine alkaloid, which he named ‘erythroxyline’. Another German, Richard Willstatter, synthesised the cocaine molecule in 1898.

In 1863 an Italian chemist named Angelo Mariani brought onto the market a wine called Vin Mariani a potent mix of wine and coca leaf.  The ethanol in the wine acted as a solvent and extracted the cocaine from the leaves - creating an ‘in vivo’ compound called cocaethlyene that hugely reinforced the impact of both drugs and has a range of effects that are both intoxicating and euphoric and dangerously toxic. It is well known that Pope Leo XIII consumed it daily, pronounced it a ‘tonic’ and  even awarded it a Papal seal of approval.

The drug affected many of the great writers of the time. Including Ibsen, Émile Zola, Alexander Dumas and Jules Verne, It began to appear in their writing, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made Holmes a user by injection, see ‘The Seven Percent Solution’, much to the disapproval of staid old Watson. Robert Louis Stephenson wrote ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ during a six-day binge and it has been suggested the duality of the central character is a rumination on the positive and destructive effects of the drug.

Cocaine was hailed as something of a ‘wonder drug’ in the late 19th century, with exponents such as Sigmund Freud praising its anaesthetic and psychological uses, particularly in the treatment of addiction. Many products, not just medicinal but even foods (Coca Cola perhaps being the most famous), began to contain it, and there was little appreciation of its own addictive properties- the actress Tallulah Bankhead commented: "Cocaine habit-forming? Of course not. I ought to know. I've been using it for years". In London in 1916, Harrods were selling a kit described as "A Welcome Present for Friends at the Front" containing cocaine, morphine, syringes and needles.

Cocaine had a less blatant profile in the first half of the twentieth century, in part due to the social, legal and moral attitudes to intoxication particularly in the USA, where the ‘cocaine crazed negro’ became a fantasy figure of fear particularly among white supremacists and tales of coloured criminals oblivious to the physical effects of bullets and driven by insatiable lust for white women became common in the tabloid press in the years before the second war.

In ‘I get a kick out of you’, from the ‘Anything Goes’ musical, Cole Porter wrote, ‘Some get a kick from cocaine’, which was later changed (from ‘Some like the perfume in Spain’) to the better known later ‘from champagne’. (The perfume went better with the next line about taking  ‘just one small sniff’).

This was a time when other drugs, such as amphetamines, cannabis and LSD became more popular, although cocaine was still widely used by jazz musicians, many of them had switched to heroin as their drug of first choice. It experienced a revival, however, in the late 1970s as the drug of choice amongst young, hard-working, hard-partying professionals, and has seen a resurgence in its general popularity since. A decade later it was the drug of choice for the upwardly mobile aspirational world of high finance and corporate trading.

The history of Hollywood after the decline of the studio system in part maps the revival of interest in cocaine.

There is a fascinating relationship between Hollywood and cocaine both in terms of the heavy use of the drug by leading artists and in the inevitable connection, a mirror of the writers of the 19th century introducing the drug into their own work. Cocaine is the means by which the heroes of ‘Easy Rider’ tried to get rich quick and fail. Many of the great American writers and directors have found the energising, stimulating effects of the drug irresistible. Coppola and Scorsese and Oliver Stone have spoken at length about their problems, as has Stephen King. Virtually every crime or gangster movie has cocaine involved in some fashion and an endless number of famous actors and actresses have had serious problems with the drug.

The early moral ambiguities of these films has been replaced by the now ubiquitous tale of the cops versus the evil drug cartels or their murderous henchmen and while the cocaine wars of recent history have been hideous affairs, it is all too easily forgotten that the ‘Iran-Contra ‘ affair and the Noriega saga are examples where political expediency, power and the colossal sums of money involved in the cocaine trade and the ruthless and homicidal tendencies of the political groupings such as FARC, The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the cartels and gangs from the Medellin and Cali cartels, Escobar’s war on the state and the current situation in Mexico and Brazil.

For the story of crack cocaine see the appropriate section on the website.